Smart cities why citizen experience is the key to success

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Article by Thawipong Anotaisinthawee, Country Manager, Nutanix (Thailand)

Smart cities present a more connected, efficient vision for the future – they are more innovative and use technology and data in ways that enable them to be cleaner, more sustainable and offer citizens a variety of automated services. From environmental monitoring to automated traffic management and digital payment capabilities, rapid technological advancements are enabling cities to create limitless potential that will shape the future of urban centres.

The shift toward creating smarter cities is completely transforming urban planning as governments around the world look to accelerate smart city development. Research shows the global smart cities market is growing so rapidly that it is expected to exceed US$2.5 trillion as early as 2025 – more than double the estimated US$1 trillion in 2020. And although the economic pressures of the pandemic have stalled some smart city developments – at least temporarily – some of the world’s biggest tech companies continue to invest heavily in smart city projects.

In 2017, the Thai government established the Smart City Office under the supervision of the Digital Economy Promotion Agency, Ministry of Digital Economy and Society. The office aims to develop smart cities in all regions across the country and to develop 100 smart cities in 76 provinces as well as Bangkok by 2022. They also set a goal to provide the City Data Platform covering all areas in the country. The development of smart cities in Thailand is divided into seven significant dimensions: smart environment, smart mobility, smart living, smart people, smart energy, smart economy, and smart governance.

To successfully build smart cities, relevant agencies can’t simply focus on technology. Instead, there needs to be a citizen-centric approach at the heart of their design. Only by taking a thoughtful, measured approach that is tailored to the individual needs of a city and its inhabitants, can digital innovation truly improve the citizen experience.

Tailoring tech initiatives to transform lives

Transforming cities to become smart, digitally connected urban centres, is no small feat. Smart cities are incredibly intricate and interconnected and therefore require intense planning prior to commencement. To make things more complicated, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to smart city planning. Each city is vastly different in terms of its citizens’ requirements, its infrastructure, and the levels of maturity of its technology capabilities. For cities that still run on legacy systems that do not facilitate the demands of a smart city – such as the technology that manages the traffic light systems or monitors buildings – far more work needs to be done in order to support the required connectivity a smart city demands.

The World Economic Forum notes that smart cities must be built in a way that acknowledges the inevitable obsolescence of current-day technologies; they must be constantly evolving and innovating, always prepared for future disruption and change. Two of the world’s smartest cities, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, are a testament to this mindset. Despite being amongst the highest ranking smart cities in the world, the two cities are now working together to find new ways to improve, piloting tech-enabled solutions to address a range of urban challenges, including energy and water sustainability, transport efficiency and dense communities.

Public-private collaborations

Although governments play a key role in the development of smart cities, their success relies on collaborations between the public and private sectors. In the same way that organisational change relies on everyone in a company working to achieve the same vision, cities are unable to transform without government bodies and private enterprise working together on transformational change. In fact, PWC goes so far to suggest that without a strong public-private ecosystem, the results will be negligible for citizens, ultimately decelerating progress.

In Thailand, its capital city Bangkok is crowded and requires efficient public transportation. Therefore, the Traffic and Transportation Department has collaborated with a private company to develop a new type of bus stop as a “Smart Bus Shelter” which is targeted to serve 350 locations across the city. The functionalities included a real-time digital screen showing bus information such as bus stop names, bus numbers that pass that stop, and the approximate time of arriving at the station. CCTV connects to the Bangkok closed circuit television management center and the police stations, and there are also battery charging ports and free Wi-Fi. The project allows people who travel by public transport to plan their trips smartly, save time, enhance their quality of life, and be safe.

Another example includes a tech startup company working with government agencies to improve and deliver new products is the public transit tracking app ViaBus, which was introduced in 2018. Thai developers created ViaBus as the country’s first real-time transit tracking and navigation app that integrates multiple modes of public transportation: buses, minibuses, BTS, MRT, trains, express boats, ferries, and interprovincial vans. With a service covering more than 70 provinces, foreigners and Thais alike can use the app to navigate the country’s vast public transit network with ease.

“Traffy Fondue” is another platform that NECTEC has further developed from the Traffy application by leveraging sensor technology and AI to “turn people’s problems into information” and “turn information into understanding” so that responsible agencies can solve problems quickly and efficiently. It is a platform for communicating city issues between citizens and authorities. People can report issues they encounter such as lighting problems, and sidewalk/road damage directly to the responsible agencies through their mobile. At the same time, the agencies are able to update the situation or the progress of the solution to the people. This allows people to participate in the development of livable cities and help to solve various problems in the city.

All businesses that operate in a city—not just technology firms—can benefit greatly from the success of smart-city initiatives. The projects that city governments launch often help to stimulate collaborative innovation and generate data that businesses can tap for their own benefit. The need to support smart services and projects with bandwidth and computing power leads to efforts to expand and improve internet connectivity, two of the chief benefits of smart-city development that executives seek to exploit.

A data-centric approach

Data is a prime currency when it comes to smart city success. When utilised and managed in the right way, the data gathered allows cities to extract key insights that drive decision-making. Data also powers the digital capabilities that make cities smart, from the sensors, the smart transport, and other automated services. In short, smart cities need a data exchange between the technology and its citizens in order to function correctly.

However, recent large-scale data breaches, combined with a growing backlash of big technology companies, have caused citizens to grow increasingly distrustful of interconnected environments. And rightly so, citizen data is highly sensitive and falling in the wrong hands can result in dire consequences. Cities must take this caution against data sharing seriously, ensuring that both data, and trust, is not breached. Data security, privacy and protection must be a core focus of any smart city development and working with trusted providers can provide governments and public institutes the security they need.

Putting people first

As cities around the world pursue smart city development, it’s important to align the development goals with the expectations of citizens. Digital innovation on its own isn’t beneficial unless it delivers an enhanced citizen experience; improved public transport, a greener and more sustainable physical environment, cleaner air and water, safer streets, more jobs, and a plethora of new opportunities for local businesses. Through proper planning, choosing the right solutions, fostering strong public-private relationships, and taking a serious approach to data security, cities will not only be able to accelerate urban intelligence, but they can make more enjoyable, more liveable environments for citizens and workers alike.

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